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Prisoners of Ourselves: Totalitarianism in Every Day Life / Yücel Taş


Special book in which there are lots of hidden things waiting to be discovered. In Prisoners of Ourselves, Gündüz Vassaf aproaches to society in an anarchic way. He consantrates on the concept of totalitarianism in every day life. He emphasizes on a critical way to social associations, states, religions, nations, armies… Actually what I list above are all socially constructed and invented. While reading Prisoners of Ourselves, many questions appear which I have never asked. As a reader, I am so impressed because questions flowed in my mind and these are hidden and internalized in a social process we have experianced. This book is a guide which detects hidden totalitarianism we face everyday.

One of his readers shares his notion that “If you want to read an essay book which is written by an psychiatrist, quite scientific, much more based on logic, I strongly recommend you Prisoner of Ourselves. Gündüz Vassaf created a book which is based on logic, very methodologic and simple, written in a theraphy session way; however, it possesses the liberty and individualistic characteristics of an essay. He argued the subjects under the totalitarian point of view and he mentioned how huge pressures that we do not feel anymore shapes us and our daily life in a real good way.” Vassaf writes that day and night were seperated and regulated to exploit masses by keeping them under the control. For example, night is forbidden and represented as house of evil because in the night authority is not able to check the behavior of the people. However, in the day time, totalitarian authority has strong control over people by its own special means like police, cameras, and interestingly by people themselves. The concept of the leisure was derived from the discrimination of the day and night. We perceive night as leisure because during the day time, our labor is exploited and feelings are manupulated, and interestingly we sense its natural. In deed, we are free in the night and modern slaves in the day time. He writes(2009)that ” Our feelings are more sensitive in the night because authority shuts down its mechines”(p-20). He emphasizes that ” Meaning of life is sensed and examined in the night. Nobody argues it during the lunch. Life is the matter of the night”(2009, p-22). He(2009)artfully relates army and night in his sentence ” Soldiers sleep before everybody. Members of the most oppressive institution of the world sleep earlier. In deed, in all totalitarian institutions, rather, in all institutions people have to sleep early – boarding school, manastery, family, prisons, hospitals…”(p-16). All we learn in a society is skillfuly created for some purposes. Benedict Anderson(1991)states that “The nation is imagined as limited”(p-7). Purpose to control and abuse masses from micro to macro level. Totalitarianism and its branches we face everyday. One of the purposes is nationalism. Sometimes we are aware of it and sometimes we do not have any sense. As an infant, we were born in a society. If it is Turkish society, first of all, we will be Turk then, Muslim and we might belive in superiority of man over woman. Is it totalitarian ? Nobody can chose being Turk or not. If you reject being Turk or Muslim, you will be probably excluded from society in some level because in totalitarian order, everyone must be something determined by order. This despotic order sees itself superior to create heaven on the earth. By its institutions, it trys to shape everyhing with accordance of its benefits. Vassaf underlines the heaven and the hell. He(2009)stated that “heaven is totalitarian because heaven on the earth which is wanted to offer was a design of governments. Politicians and experts decide how this heaven will be…They use media to erase the idea of hell from the consciousness of 21th century”(pp-28, 29). The hell on the earth is censored and it is taboo. “Today, executions and government terror are hided from public opinion”(p-28). In Turkey, there are lots of unsolved executions like Bahriye Ucok and Ugur Mumcu. Gunduz Vassaf defines and examines the concept of madness. Authority defines who is normal or mad. Madness becomes an identity which tagged by the authority(order). He states that Homosexuality was declared that it is not a illness by American Psychology Association(APA) in 1970s because there were inprovement in the homosexual movement in politics. Before 1970s, it was named as a madness. As Shakespeare says that there might be a method of going mad but each mad has different methods. In the book of Vassaf, he claims that madness is standardized because madness is seen as a treat to the authority(order) which has interests over people. “Psychiatry is a tool of pressure”(p-50). For example, Gunduz Vassaf also mention about an event in U.S.S.R. “Natalya Gorbanevskaya and seven other protesters demonstrated in Red Square on 9-25-68 against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The other demonstrators were Larisa Bogoraz, Konstantin Babtsky, Vadim Delaunay, Vladimir Dremluga, Pavel Litvinov, Viktor Frainberg and Tatiana Baeva….Gorbanevskaya was arrested in December, 1969, and locked up in a mental hospital until February, 1972.” This symbolises that nobody can protest authority. If they do, they must be mad. Vassaf highlights the high prestige of psychiatry in capitalist states. Psychiatry as a branch has high income and is respected more in society. This high authority easly can name someone mad. This fear prevents actions against the system because most of people fear to be tagged as a mad. Vassaf explains this situation with an example. For instance, an official hesitates to fly a kite with his or her chield because he fears to be tagged. If he does, someone can say that this man must be mad, he is old enough and he can not do this. In deed, that official just wants to spend time with his or her chield and he may want to memorialize the past. Sometimes we use some statements like that “We dont sleep last night and listen the night… What a madness ! Isnt it ?” This kind of activities are seen strange. However, in the essence of life we dont have to behave in a strict pattern. Nation state and its organs like army use psychiatry to canalize masses. Psychiater in army is good at manupulate soldiers who hesitate to fight. Vassaf (2009)writes “The duity of psychiater is to convince him to fight”(p-54). From this point of view, it is normal to kill anyone and it is madness if a soldier hesitates. This is bestiality imposed by the states(order). As we can see, it is related with tha nationalism and wars. Nationalism(fascism) reckons feelings by manuplating reason. By the effect of the army psychiaters, war machines(soldiers) become more effective of killing enemies. Nationalism and national propagand make people more crucial and fascist. Tv channels are mediums to dominate this aim. In deed, nationalism(fascism) is strong and crucial as much as religion which is more crucial in some manner. According to Tanıl Bora; Islamic nationalism strenghtes after 1980s by criticizing nation state and nationalism because in the traditional Islam, Muslim community is above the nation(2003).

Totalitarian regime requires institutions at the same level with itself. Therefore, religion and nationalism feeds themselves from its institutions by using propagand machines. These institutions can be both political, economic and social to create a collective madness. Gunduz Vassaf (2009)defines collective madness that “It is a system which state and its institutions embraced… Individuals who fear to listen his/herself identify his/herself with the madness of the state. Good ctizen is a ctizen who is the part of collective madness which is desructive”(p-55). Collective madness differs from individual madness which conflicts with authority(order). This collective madness is limitles with the process of the globalization. With the global economy and the standardization, clothing, foods, sexual norms, entertainment and the art are going to be collective madness. “Collective madness of masses attracts us”(2009, p-55). Pink contributes the ideas that “the global triumph of consumerism is affecting not only the availability and variety of consumer goods, but also the presentation, promotion and advertising of goods and the spaces in which consumption takes place. From Coca-Cola to shopping malls, consumerism is everywhere—in the Muslim world and beyond”(2009, p-4). Consumer society is also in collective madness. This type of madness can change ‘status quo’ and create another ‘statu quo’. Vassaf(2009)gives an example that “French revolution is an example of exchange of collective madness with another one. State takes place of church and totalitarian state education takes place of totalitarian religious education”(p-56). A new class emerges to maintain totalitarian order. Another example that In the U.S.A, during the 1970s a chield was trying to find a communist under his/her bed but now he/she searchs for a terrorist(Islamic) instead of a communist. According to collective madness, there must be an enemy to sustain totalitarian order. Vassaf gives next example that ” Adorno, Holkheimer and their friends escaped to U.S.A because of German fascism. They made a research about anti-semitism in U.S.A and they point that anti-semitism is more common in U.S.A rather than Germany”(2009, p-57). As a result, every state is against another totalitarian state but in essence all are totalitarian in some manner. An example in daily life that we live daily collective madness, we spend million dolars to produce and buy fastest car but at the same time, we try to control and reduce speed limit. While sychiater is helping to restrain our individual madness, he/she tries to increase our collective madness in every field like consumption. In the process, slower or faster, we all become conformist. Law, Norms and Media make us conformist by Gramsci’s “consent and force”. Mass media does it especially by consent. In that point, Collective madness is created and sometimes we accept what is best or who is better or best. Lazarsfeld and Merton point that media serves many social fuctions. One of it is “status conferral function”. They(1948)emphasize that ” The mass media bestow prestige and enhance the authority of individuals and groups by legitimizing their status….. This status conferral function thus enters into organized social action by legitimizing selected policies, persons, and groups which receive the support of mass media”(p-233). Authority and its power oblige us to confirm everything served by media. We do it in order to take a place or a status in a society. Vassaf ‘s collective madness is related with this consent to we maintain unconsciously. Authority(order) applies its politics consciously. Vassaf underlies that without any selectivity while watching news causes passivity which provides manupulation and control over us. Disconnection between events is promoted and supported to create unsufficiency to analyze what is happening in the world, even in our country. In today’s world, everything is consumed so fast, even news. There are garbage of news consumed by the massess and it confuces the mind of masses. This is named as “informadness” in Prisoners of Ourselves. Enzenberger(1974)writes that “The mind industry’s main business and concern is not to sell its product: it is to ‘sell’ the existing order, to perpetuate the prevailing pattern of man’s domination by man, no matter who runs the society, and by what means. Its main task is to expand and train our consciousness – in order to exploit it”(p-10). Advertisements, informations and news that which are created by media on specific aims consciously. Informadness is output of a process created by aouthority. Vassaf points that manuplating public with information technology is well known business done by media patrons(news profesionals). With old technology, newspapers gives its readers some advatages while reading newspaper. For example, he/she can turn back and read the passage again. Also reader can underline the news and send a letter to editors. However, with television indormation is started to be given faster and there is little chance to follow healthilly. Totalitarian authority has an impact on every field of society to maintain its order ‘status quo’. Heroes emerge as a reaction to a totalitarian aouthority. Sometimes revolutions happened then, new totalitarian regimes emerged and heroes overcoming the status quo built a new one by using machines of states so manupulation is inevitable. French revolution has its own heroes who overcame the totalitarian ‘status quo’. In Spain Franco emerges in civil war and took his place in the history as a hero of Spain. Franco as a hero was totalitarian. Mustafa Kemal was also a hero who founded Turkish Repunlic, he made some totalitarian reforms. In some manner he was a dictator with a one party regime till he died. Some behaviors of him were similar with Franco of Spain. Such as, prohibitions, exiles, executions, one party regime…and he is still a symbol of a ‘status quo’ in Turkey. Another view in the Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt(1951): “Stalin decided to rewrite the history of Russian Revolution, the propaganda of his new version consisted in destroying, together with the older books and documents, their authors and readers: the publication in 1938 of a new official history of the Communist Party was the signal that the superpurge which had decimated a whole generation of Soviet intellectuals had come to an end. Similarly, the Nazis in the Easter occupied territories at first used chiefly anti-semitic propaganda to win firmer control of the population……Since totalitarian movements exist in a world which itself is non-totalitarian, they are forced to resort to what we commonly regard as propaganda”(pp, 341-342). U.S.S.R was keeping Lenin alive. Why did U.S.S.R need this policy ? Leaders(heros) are olso totalitarian in today’s society. They are not just national leaders but also religious leaders. Gündüz Vassaf states that “Humanistic aspect of hero is useless for totalitarian order”(p-78). Totalitarian order tries to exalt hero as a god. This is a way of building immortality. Masses respect to hero and need to tie themselves with the hero. Also common glorious history now is ready to keep masses as a whole. In addition to this, the background of nation states was feeded by heroes and common history. Renan(1996) says that ” A heroic past, of great men, of glory, that is social principle on which the national idea rests”(p-41). For Vassaf, childrens start to believe in heroes who is not only national, some of them is “imaginary”. Childrens and teenagers like to listen or read the story of heroes –superman, football players, soldiers, politicians- to identify themselves. As it is known that most of behaviors are socially constructed according to the pattern of totalitarian order. Vassaf claims that For the survival of totalitarian order, it is important to occupy the mind of children by the image of heroes because children can easly accept the ideology and values of totalitarian order via heroes. At this point, exploitation in feelings and reason starts. Hero is somebody which we can not be an individual. Hero is almost holy and precise like a bible. However, a betrayer is damned like a devil. As we can analyze that nation states have many betrayers created to protect the interests of nation state. For the protection of national interests, one can be proclaimed as a betrayer, even if he/she says the truth over an issue. Vassaf says that Trotsky was charged and named as betrayer by Stalin and party. Then, Stalin was named as a betrayer by Khrushchev. Vassaf defends the idea that “there is no space for heros in free countries”(p-81). In totalitarian society, in order to protect hero, they use some rationalization unconsciously because he is not fully perfect. A hero can be abandoned in a night and a new hero can be embraced by the masses. For example, Mao Zedung in Chine abandoned and his book(Red Book) lost its popularity. However, in the past he was embraced by the masses. Vassaf believes that betrayer is free man/woman rescues him/herself from the totalitarian order. He is betrayer because he revolts against the totalitarian order by rejecting its rules(dictations). Therefore, this rebellion soul was excluded, humiliated and named as betrayer who is hated by manuplated masses. Betrayer can be individual or group. Vassaf is in belief that we are real betrayers, betrayer is masses who follow the determined offical(also totalitarian) order. Vassaf also express that “A free man can not have heroes because hero symbolises the status quo”(p-84). Consensus makes us integrated, at that time, we start to ask same questions and we search for same answers and write same books. In nation state, there are many academicians writes same book in a common consensus serving the interests of nation state. In every day life, compromise is repsented as the best result and ultimate purpose. The compromise is submission which is in favor of totalitarian order according to Vassaf.

In this book, Gündüz Vassaf, generally gives us the idea that (totalitarian)order we live in shapes everything we decide, face, taste and whatever we have. This varies from having a baby to being a doctor or police. We can call this, like micro to macro level decisions. For example, having a family is the idea that most of us agrees without questioning. Alaeddin Senel(1995) in his book states that “For Jean Bodin, the source of state is family”(p-313). Can it be related with totalitarian order defined and explained by Gündüz Vassaf in every day life ? Is it serves the interests of totalitarian order ? Forget about it, and let us ask that can any rule(called as duity by state) or habit we fulfill without questioning serve the interest of totalitarian order ? Many new and interesting questions will appear in the mind after we read and evaluate the ideas of Gündüz Vassaf. Actually we can found him so interesting or escapist so I recomend it.


1 – Anderson, Benedict. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised Edition ed. London and New York: Verso.

2- Arendt. H.(1951). The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York, Harcourt.

3- Bora, Tanıl. (2003). Nationalist Discourses in Turkey: The South Atlantic Quarterly. Vol.102.

4- Enzenberger, H.M.(1974). The consciousness of Industry: On literature, Politics and Media. Continuum Books.

5- Peters, J.P & Simonson, P. (2004). Mass communication and American social thought : Key Texts, 1919-1968.

6- Pink, Johanna. (2009). Muslim Societies in the Age of Mass Consumption: Politics, Culture and Identity between the Local and the Global. Cambridge edition.

7- Renan, Ernest. (1996). “What is a Nation?”, Becoming National: A Reader. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

8- Senel, Alaeddin. (1995). The history of political thought. Bilim ve sanat yayınları. Ankara.

9- Vassaf Gündüz. (2009). Prisoners of Ourselves: Totalitarianism in Every Day Life. Istanbul.

10- http://holly-s-tone.blogspot.com/2007/12/cehenneme-vg-prisoner-of-ourselves.html.

11- http://legendofpineridge.blogspot.com/2008/05/hero-of-our-time-natalya- gorbanevskaya.html.

Yücel Taş


August 2020
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